| Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers|
|by John Burroughs|
|Delightful sketches of small mammals familiar to country dwellers including the squirrel, chipmunk, woodchuck, rabbit, muskrat, skunk, fox, weasel, mink, raccoon, porcupine, opossum, and mouse. Anecdotes based upon the authorís firsthand observations and personal encounters with these creatures of the wild. Ages 10-12 |
A LIFE OF FEAR
 AS I sat looking from my window the other morning upon a
red squirrel gathering nuts from a small hickory, and
storing them up in his den in the bank, I was forcibly
reminded of the state of constant fear and apprehension
in which the wild creatures live, and I tried to
picture to myself what life would be to me, or to any
of us, hedged about by so many dangers, real or
The squirrel would shoot up the tree, making only a
brown streak from the bottom to the top; would seize
his nut and rush down again in the most hurried manner.
Half way to his den, which was not over three rods
distant, he would rush up the trunk of another tree for
a few yards to make an observation. No danger being
near, he would dive into his den and reappear again in
Returning for another nut, he would mount the second
tree again for another observation. Satisfied that the
coast was clear, he would spin
 along the top of
the ground to the tree that bore the nuts, shoot up it
as before, seize the fruit, and then back again to his
Never did he fail during the half hour or more that I
watched him to take an observation on his way both to
and from his nest. It was "snatch and run" with him.
Something seemed to say to him all the time: "Look out!
look out!" "The cat!" "The hawk!" "The owl!" "The
boy with the gun!"
It was a bleak December morning; the first fine flakes
of a cold, driving snowstorm were just beginning to
sift down, and the squirrel was eager to finish
harvesting his nuts in time. It was quite touching to
see how hurried and anxious and nervous he was. I felt
like going out and lending a hand. The nuts were
small, poor pig-nuts, and I thought of all the gnawing
he would have to do to get at the scanty meat they
held. My little boy once took pity on a squirrel that
lived in the wall near the gate, and cracked the nuts
for him, and put them upon a small board shelf in the
tree where he could sit and eat them at his ease.
The red squirrel is not so provident as the chipmunk.
He lays up stores irregularly, by fits and starts; he
never has enough put up to carry him over the winter;
hence he is more
 or less active all the season.
Long before the December snow, the chipmunk has for
days been making hourly trips to his den with full
pockets of nuts or corn or buckwheat, till his bin
holds enough to carry him through to April. He need
not, and I believe does not, set foot out of doors
during the whole winter. But the red squirrel trusts
more to luck.
As alert and watchful as the red squirrel is, he is
frequently caught by the cat. My Nig, as black as
ebony, knows well the taste of his flesh. I have
known him to be caught by the black snake and
successfully swallowed. The snake, no doubt, lay in
ambush for him.
This fear, this ever-present source of danger of the
wild creatures, we know little about. Probably the
only person in the civilized countries who is no better
off than the animals in this respect is the Czar of
Russia. He would not even dare gather nuts as openly
as my squirrel. A blacker and more terrible cat than
Nig would be lying in wait for him and would make a
meal of him. The early settlers in this country must
have experienced something of this dread of
apprehension from the Indians. Many African tribes now
live in the same state of constant fear of the
slave-catchers or of other hostile tribes. Our
ancestors, back in prehistoric times,
 must have
known fear as a constant feeling. Hence the prominence
of fear in infants and children when compared with the
youth or the grown person. Babies are nearly always
afraid of strangers.
In the domestic animals also, fear is much more active
in the young than in the old. Nearly every farm boy
has seen a calf but a day or two old, which its mother
has secreted in the woods or in a remote field, charge
upon him furiously with a wild bleat, when first
discovered. After this first ebullition of fear, it
usually settles down into the tame humdrum of its
Eternal vigilance is the price of life with most of the
wild creatures. There is only one among them whose
wildness I cannot understand, and that is the common
water turtle. Why is this creature so fearful? What
are its enemies? I know of nothing that preys upon it.
Yet see how watchful and suspicious these turtles are
as they sun themselves upon a log or a rock. While you
are yet many yards away from them, they slide down into
the water and are gone.
The land turtle, on the other hand, shows scarcely a
trace of fear. He will indeed pause in his walk when
you are very near him, but he will not retreat into his
shell till you have poked
 him with your foot or
your cane. He appears to have no enemies; but the
little spotted water turtle is as shy as if he were the
delicate tidbit that every creature was searching for.
I did once find one which a fox had dug out of the mud
in winter, and carried a few rods and dropped on the
snow, as if he had found he had no use for it.
One can understand the fearlessness of the skunk.
Nearly every creature but the farm-dog yields to him
the right of way. All dread his terrible weapon. If
you meet one in your walk in the twilight fields, the
chances are that you will turn out for him, not he for
you. He may even pursue you, just for the fun of
seeing you run. He comes waltzing toward you,
apparently in the most hilarious spirits.
The coon is probably the most courageous creature among
our familiar wild animals. Who ever saw a coon show
the white feather? He will face any odds with perfect
composure. I have seen a coon upon the ground, beset
by four men and two dogs, and never for a moment losing
his presence of mind, or showing a sign of fear. The
raccoon is clear grit.
The fox is a very wild and suspicious creature, but
curiously enough, when you suddenly come face to face
with him, when he is held by a trap, or driven by the
hound, his expression is not that
 of fear, but of
shame and guilt. He seems to diminish in size and to
be overwhelmed with humiliation. Does he know himself
to be an old thief, and is that the reason of his
embarrassment? The fox has no enemies but man, and
when he is fairly outwitted he looks the shame he
In the heart of the rabbit fear constantly abides. How
her eyes protrude! She can see back and forward and on
all sides as well as a bird. The fox is after her, the
owls are after her, the gunners are after her, and she
has no defense but her speed. She always keeps well to
cover. The northern hare keeps in the thickest brush.
If the hare or rabbit crosses a broad open exposure it
does so hurriedly, like a mouse when it crosses the
road. The mouse is in danger of being pounced upon by
a hawk, and the hare or rabbit by the snowy owl, or
else the great horned owl.
A friend of mine was following one morning a fresh
rabbit track through an open field. Suddenly the track
came to an end, as if the creature had taken
wings,—as it had after an unpleasant fashion.
There, on either side of its last foot imprint, were
several parallel lines in the snow, made by the wings
of the great owl that had swooped down and carried it
off. What a little
 tragedy was seen written
there upon the white, even surface of the field!
The rabbit has not much wit. Once, when a boy, I saw
one that had been recently caught, liberated in an open
field in the presence of a dog that was being held a
few yards away. The poor thing lost all presence of
mind, and was quickly caught by the clumsy dog.
A hunter once saw a hare running upon the ice along the
shore of one of the Rangeley lakes. Presently a lynx
appeared in hot pursuit; as soon as the hare found it
was being pursued, it began to circle, foolish thing.
This gave the lynx greatly the advantage as it could
follow in a much smaller circle. Soon the hare was run
down and seized.
I saw a similar experiment tried with a red squirrel
with quite the opposite results. The boy who had
caught the squirrel in his wire trap had a very bright
and nimble dog about the size of a fox, that seemed to
be very sure he could catch a red squirrel under any
circumstances if only the trees were out of the way.
So the boy went to the middle of an open field with his
caged squirrel, the dog, who seemed to know what was
up, dancing and jumping about him. It was in
midwinter; the snow had a firm crust that held boy and
dog alike. The dog was
 drawn back a few yards
and the squirrel liberated.
Then began one of the most exciting races I have
witnessed for a long time. It was impossible for the
lookers-on not to be convulsed with laughter, though
neither dog nor squirrel seemed to regard the matter as
much of a joke. The squirrel had all his wits about
him, and kept them ready for instant use. He did not
show the slightest confusion. He was no match for the
dog in fair running, and he discovered this fact in
less than three seconds; he must win, if at all, by
strategy. Not a straight course for the nearest tree,
but a zigzag course, yea, a double or treble zigzag
course. Every instant the dog was sure the squirrel
was his, and every instant he was disappointed. It was
incredible and bewildering to him. The squirrel dodged
this way and that. The dog looked astonished and
vexed. Then the squirrel issued from between his
enemy's hind legs and made three jumps towards the
woods before he was discovered. Our sides ached with
laughter, cruel as it may seem.
It was evident the squirrel would win. The dog seemed
to redouble his efforts. He would overshoot the game,
or shoot by it to the right or left. The squirrel was
the smaller craft, and
 could out-tack him easily.
One more leap and the squirrel was up a tree, and the
dog was overwhelmed with confusion and disgust. He
could not believe his senses. "Not catch a squirrel in
such a field as that? Go to, I will have him yet!" and
he bounded up the tree as high as one's head, and then
bit the bark of it in his anger and chagrin.
The boy says his dog has never bragged since about
catching red squirrels "if only the trees were out of
When any of the winged creatures are engaged in a life
and death race in that way, or in any other race, the
tactics of the squirrel do not work; the pursuer never
overshoots nor shoots by his mark. The flight of the
two is timed as if they were parts of one whole. A
hawk will pursue a sparrow or a robin through a zigzag
course and not lose a stroke or half a stroke of the
wing by reason of any darting to the right or left.
The clue is held with fatal precision. No matter how
quickly nor how often the sparrow or the finch changes
its course, its enemy changes, simultaneously, as if
every move was known to it from the first.
The same thing may be noticed among the birds in their
love chasings; the pursuer seems to know perfectly the
mind of the pursued. This
 concert of action
among birds is very curious. When they are on the
alert, a flock of sparrows, or pigeons, or cedar-birds,
or snow buntings, or blackbirds, will all take flight
as if there were but one bird, instead of a hundred.
The same impulse seizes every individual bird at the
same instant, as if they were sprung by electricity.
Or when a flock of birds is in flight, it is still one
body, one will; it will rise, or circle, or swoop with
a unity that is truly astonishing.
A flock of snow buntings will perform their aerial
evolutions with a precision that the best-trained
soldiery cannot equal. Have the birds an extra sense
which we have not? A brood of young partridges in the
woods will start up like an explosion, every brown
particle and fragment hurled into the air at the same
instant. Without word or signal, how is it done?
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